Facing Up to Climate Change: 10 Years On | Participatory politics and the climate emergency

The challenges posed by climate change require unprecedented changes in our society and economy. This will necessarily require higher levels of social consent than are available in the current context. We
welcome the work we describe above by Scottish Government, civil society and others to increase participation in decision making around climate change in both national and local contexts through citizens’ assemblies and other participatory approaches. Civil society-led initiatives like the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission are also helpful.

We believe that the more we work at creating participatory approaches, the more effective we will become at ensuring their integrity and impacts. Practice may not make perfect, but the more we understand these processes, the better we will become at developing them. To be sure, mini-publics like assemblies and juries are only one type of democratic innovation, and we need a wide range of participatory approaches. from the local to the national and transnational. Here we have focussed on mini-publics because they illustrate the potential for developing new civic and political institutions. But no single process or institution can carry the full burden of the challenges ahead – we must think in systemic terms about the contribution of both legacy institutions and democratic innovations, seeking to overcome their frictions and enable synergies.

The main opportunities for change lie in the way we constitute participatory processes and in the way their recommendations are taken up. In both cases, there needs to be more participation. We need a recognised approach to agreeing on the agenda to be addressed by the participatory process. We also need a clear pipeline to change. In both cases, more coverage and profile may be helpful, particularly given the aim of gaining public insights and consent for more radical change. But the task is further complicated by the nature of our traditional or ‘legacy’ institutions, which were built on the premise of elite-driven democracy. Substantial democratic renewal and reform will require institutional and civic entrepreneurs prepared to spend political capital in carving up space for participatory democracy. History has taught us that we cannot separate means and ends – the means must reflect the principles and practices of the desirable futures we are trying to build.

The creation of national missions must have citizen participation and deliberation at its heart. At the same time, the missions must match the scale of the climate emergency. This creates the opportunity to create space for participatory processes which can meet public aspirations for change and address both policy and market failures. If we can match this with effective funding and delivery mechanisms, then we may be able to generate the momentum for the radical action that is much needed.

The RSE’s 2011 report on Facing Up to Climate Change made a range of excellent suggestions. The Just Transition Commission and the report from Scotland’s Climate Assembly build on this work. The question, now, is how citizens can contribute to developing those solutions and catalyse the necessary action across businesses, communities and institutions. Part of the answer lies in deeper public deliberation about what change is needed and how that can be delivered. We think that the more attention a citizens’ assembly receives, the more chances there are that legacy institutions will take its recommendations seriously.

We know that we need profound change. Our democratic system needs to be both at the heart of that change and to embody the spirit of that change. The question is how we can make sure that participation is designed as effectively and inclusively as possible and that it drives the creation of a national mission on climate change as part of a global drive to zero-carbon. Working towards this aim with urgency, fairness and imagination can help to meet the most elusive of challenges for our current political institutions: short-term decision making based on long-term thinking. We believe that expanding the bandwidth of democratic life is crucial to developing and sustaining the systemic changes needed to address the climate emergency.


This publication is part of a follow-up series to the 2011 RSE inquiry, Facing Up to Climate Change.

A lot has happened over the subsequent ten years – and at the same time, not enough. While Scotland has made some progress towards meeting its world-leading emissions reduction targets, certain sectors remain in need of concerted and integrated action.

Facing up to climate change: 10 years on